thoughtsLifeboat problem

When I wrote the last thing I put up, it got me thinking about the lifeboat hypothetical situation, and I'm pretty sure I've solved it rather conclusively.

The lifeboat conundrum usually goes as follows:

"You're in a lifeboat with a baby, a convicted felon, and a geriatric old man. You will be rescued, but not before you'd all starve to death. However, if the rest of you eat one passenger, you will live long enough to be rescued. Who do you kill and eat?"

The conundrum will usually send most people scratching their heads and mumbling to themselves for a while, and when they finally come to a conclusion, there's always someone nearby to be offended that they'd be willing to murder a baby, or that they don't believe the felon can be reformed, etc. etc.

Once I reveal the correct answer, however, I think you'll see that it's pretty tough to argue against. The key, here, is recognizing that you are presented with a false trichotomy.

You're fooled by the structure of the question to believe that the only possible answers are

a) Kill and eat the baby.
b) Kill and eat the felon, or
c) Kill and eat the old man.

but, of course, that's wrong. And no, I'm not suggesting the correct answer is d) Starve, or e) Kill and eat all of the above. That would be stupid.

Think. How many people are in the lifeboat? If you answered three, you're wrong. It's four.

The correct answer is f) Volunteer to be eaten.

Now, before you jump up and say "But Tailsteak! Don't you want to live?" - of course I want to live! I have responsibilities, plans for the future, loved ones who I don't want to grieve for me.... I love life! That's the thing, though - so do the three other guys. Everyone does!

Our respective survival instincts cancel each other out.

Now, this conundrum is obviously an ethical or moral test - it's meant to stimulate that section of your brain. And, indeed, the implied question of "Which of these three is it ethically or morally preferable to kill?" is a difficult one to answer. But, of course, that's only the implied question. Once the element of self-sacrifice is entered, the superceding question is "Which is ethically or morally preferable: to murder someone and eat their flesh, or to sacrifice yourself to save three lives?". Phrased like that, the answer is obvious.

And, of course, it has a number of practical benefits as well.

A baby doesn't have much meat on him - not nearly enough to sustain three adults for any appreciable length of time. The old man's meat is stringy and contains a lifetime's worth of toxins. The felon is far more likely than average to have a substance abuse problem or carry a communicable disease. In contrast, I happen to be two hundred pounds of lean, clean nonsmoker (although, of course, I'd hope to be down to one-eighty before we start debating cannibalism).

The baby and old man would probably be easy to kill, but if we did decide that the felon was the preferred candidate, he'd probably be unlikely to lie down and accept it based on a committee vote. If he were the acquiescent type, he wouldn't be a felon. I don't think I could take him with only an infant and an octogenarian for backup, and the struggle would result in far too many burned calories and possible injuries. Someone voluntarily laying down their life is obviously preferable.

You also have to consider the legal status of the other passengers, once they're rescued. Their futures are a lot clearer if they can show people a signed statement that shows that I committed suicide of my own free will and gave them my fully informed consent to consume my flesh.

Finally, consider the issue of the other parties' consciences. If I talk the geezer into killing and eating a baby, he'd have to bear the memory of that for the rest of his short life. Similarly, if I talk the criminal into murdering and cannibalizing the old man, he might use it as one more tale of debauchery, one more notch in his belt of depraved acts that he can use to impress his fellow convicts. And what of the child who grows up knowing that the only reason he's alive is because he was fed the flesh of a murdered murderer? You can't tell me that wouldn't do some long-term psychological damage!

In contrast, if I take the initiative and perform the act of self-sacrifice, the only one who has to feel guilty for killing me is me, and the others only have to worry about whether or not they're wasting food. Sometimes, the greatest favour you can do for a person is to take a difficult moral choice out of their hands, even if that means you shoulder the burden of wrongdoing yourself. Besides, it's possible that the others will be inspired by my sacrifice and go on to live lives of selfless altruism, striving to follow the example I've set. It's really the best of the possible outcomes.


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